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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Contract Soldiers Flee Army

An increasing number of contract soldiers are deserting their units in Chechnya amid a dispute about low salaries and arrears, a senior commander said Monday.

Many of the so-called kontraktniki, who used to get paid more than 20,000 rubles a month, are unhappy about now getting 5,500 rubles when they are paid at all, and they are leaving conscripted troops to soldier on alone, Colonel General Vladislav Putilin said at a news conference.

The exodus is gaining momentum as the army is setting out to form the 42nd division of Defense Ministry troops and the 46th division of Interior Troops in Chechnya, which were supposed to be largely manned by contract soldiers, Putilin said, without elaborating on how many soldiers were deserting.

President Vladimir Putin on Saturday toured several units of the as-yet incomplete 42nd division and said he was outraged that the contract soldiers' combat wages of 850 rubles to 950 rubles a day have been delayed.

Putin ordered top government officials at a meeting Monday to pay the arrears of soldiers in Chechnya.

The army began hiring contract soldiers under orders from the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry in the early 1990s.

The plan was to build the military into a professional armed force.

However, even the relatively high wages of 20,000 rubles have failed to attract enough volunteers to fill even half of the armed forces, forcing the military to continue to rely on teenage conscripts.

Only Russia's peacekeeping forces are fully manned with volunteers, but even the best of them — like the 201st motorized infantry division in Tajikistan — suffers from defectors.

Contract servicemen accounted for 200,000 of Russia's 1.2 million-strong armed forces last year, Colonel General Ilya Panin said at a recent news conference.

The volunteers were split about evenly between men and women, and most of the women had desk jobs, he said.

Putilin said Monday that 38 percent of all Defense Ministry soldiers in Chechnya were contract soldiers and 87 percent of them served in combat units as of last September.

The government decided late last year to effectively cut their salaries by paying only when contract soldiers were on combat missions and, even then, only on a daily basis.

Contract soldiers have held a number of rallies over back pay outside of the military's headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Military experts said contract soldiers would continue to desert even if arrears are paid.

Many leave anyway as soon as their six-month contracts expire because the money earned from their tour of duty — when it is paid — is enough to live on for some time, said independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

Additionally, once they have pocketed the money or have seen Chechnya firsthand, few want to sign up for a second term and risk being wounded or captured by Chechen rebels, who are merciless with contract soldiers, he said.

Paradoxically, commanders in Chechnya may be able to improve their units because of the exodus, experts said.

Unlike teenage conscripts, contract soldiers are less inclined to obey orders and lack morale. Also, they often have been accused by Chechens of abuses and looting.